Spaces of protest as spaces of democracy ― Nurul Azreen Azlan

MARCH 11 ― A video of a young woman shouting “Siapa Muhyiddin? Aku tak vote dia” has made the meme rounds on the internet recently, spawning creative versions and interpretations of a protest cry made at a rally at Dataran Merdeka on February 29, 2020. Some agreed with the statement, clapping while in attendance at the rally; others found it crass and insulting. Some thought the decision was fair and people should move on; others thought this was essentially a backdoor government. Whatever one’s opinion is on what transpired over the past few weeks, the very fact that we have the space to express that opinion in print, online or on the streets should not be taken lightly: because that space in itself is what is afforded by democracy. 

Spaces of protest often ― and should ― overlap with spaces of everyday life. During the February 29 protest at Dataran Merdeka, the crowd was huddled around the speakers while at the same time, city dwellers picnicked happily on the grass with their families. The next day, the same scenario unfolded at the entrance of Sogo department store. Minutes before protesters started converging, the steps were occupied by people watching the buskers. This is typical of protests at Sogo, where protesters share the same space as shoppers, people watchers, and other pedestrians on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.

As expected, the police warned the public against attending the protest at Sogo. Among the reasons given was that this space has not been designated for rallies. This statement is particularly interesting, because to begin with, we do not have spaces designated for rallies. Furthermore, to allocate rallies special places defeats the purpose: any public space worth its salt should be able to host these activities.

In Malaysia, the call to protest in public spaces are met with arguments that such events cause negative externalities, such as a reduction of earnings of business owners in the vicinity of the protest spot, causing traffic jams, impacting the image of the country negatively, and the like. Do these arguments hold water?

The last four major rallies in the city (Bersih 4 and 5, ICERD, and Himpunan Penyatuan Ummah) have shown that rallies are not always that disruptive to the city, and the more enterprising city folk made extra money by selling t-shirts and food and water. Reflecting on other “disruptive” events, one could argue that given certain functions, key roads in central KL are closed from vehicular traffic anyway and affect access to businesses. The logic that street protest would give the country a negative image is incomprehensible. There are many other things that we should be ashamed of, like how child marriage is still allowed in this country, our minimum wage is not living wage, and access to affordable housing is lacking to those who actually need it ― but it’s street rallies that cast a pallor to our international standing?

To use the excuse that protest will impact earnings and the economy is to reduce the city to purely a commercial space. Thus, our roles are also reduced to producers and consumers, and not as citizens of this space that we share together. Citizenship is not just about having an identity card or a passport and being able to vote in elections. Furthermore, in a democracy, citizens have the right and the duty to participate in matters of public interest. Democracy goes beyond casting your vote every five years at the ballot box.

For a space to be truly public, we have to be able to use it beyond commercial logic. We have to be able to participate in public life, outside our other roles as producer or consumer. We must be able to practise our citizenship in the public space.

In reality, the size of our public space has shrunk, given the proliferation of spaces deemed public that are actually constructed and managed by private enterprise. In the US and the UK, the birthplaces of neoliberalism, spaces like this are categorised as privately-owned public space (POPS), where the public is allowed to enter and use spaces which are owned by companies or corporations. Because the ownership of these spaces is not public, the owners have the right to decide what they deem as the correct way for you to conduct yourself in this space. Think of it as being in a shopping mall, but outdoors.

Therefore, we must claim and protect the spaces that we have. It is one thing to have POPS where the ownership clearly lies with private enterprise whose aim is profit-making, but it is another to let market logic permeates into the governance and management of our public spaces.

A robust public space should be able to accommodate many needs of the public, from the leisurely purpose of the more privileged, to the common man looking for respite, and finally, for the disenfranchised to seek shelter.

We never know our luck might turn tomorrow and we might find ourselves in the streets, and we can only hope that the streets would be kind in our time of need. Similarly, just because some of us do not see the need to go to the streets now, we might need to in the future.

By then, I hope we still have this space, not just in the streets, but also in our hearts and minds.

* Dr Nurul Azreen Azlan is an academic researcher examining the relationship between public space and democracy. She teaches in the MSc Sustainable Urban Design programme at UTMKL.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

Related Articles